Wilderness and the Myth of the Pristine


Have you noticed how much environmental organizations, environmental professionals and environmental activists use the word pristine?  It seems that anytime and enviro wants to protect something that something must be described as pristine.

In my neighborhood (the Klamath Mountains of Northwest California and SW Oregon) the term is regularly used to describe two of our rivers: The Smith and the Cal Salmon. Both rivers enjoy good water quality and both are strongholds for at risk salmon and steelhead. But neither the Smith nor the Cal Salmon is pristine.

During the Gold Rush, the Cal Salmon was dammed, diverted and the bed was turned over in search of “color” – as the miners referred to it. Whole hillsides were denuded of trees. During the 1970s and 1980s the US Forest Service built hundreds of miles of roads and clearcut thousands of acres of Old Growth Forest. Many of those roads failed in subsequent storms delivering millions of tons of sediment to the Salmon River and its tributaries. In the 5 years after the 1987 fires alone, 95 million board feet of timber was removed from the watershed.  The Cal Salmon is definitely not pristine.

The Smith River was also subjected to road building on steep unstable slopes and timber extraction through clearcutting. Fortunately, that destruction mostly ended with establishment of the Siskiyou Wilderness and the Smith River National Recreation Area by Congress. However, the Smith has a major US highway perched above one of its major forks from which diesel spills have occurred as well as lily bulb farms at the estuary which use more pounds of pesticides per acre than anywhere else in California. The Smith River is also not pristine.

Both the Cal Salmon and the Smith River are blessed with large areas of wilderness. As a result – and in spite of the indignities that have been visited on them by humans – the Smith and Cal Salmon still have some of the best water quality you can find in California. Both watersheds are among the few remaining stronghold for Wild Salmon. These are extremely important watersheds; but they are not pristine.

Historical Critique

The penchant of environmentalists to misuse the term pristine has been noted – and criticized – by geographers and historians. The best known critique is probably contained in the book 1491 by Charles C. Mann. Another well known critique is William Denevan’s 1992 scholarly article The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492.  

But the rethinking of assumptions underlying the Environmental Movement was pioneered by historian William Cronon. Cronon’s The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature (which is also a chapter in the collection of essays he edited titled Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature). Cronon’s article elicited howls of protest from the Environmental Establishment. The howls were so loud and the subsequent polarization into warring sides so strong, that dialogue and deep examination of the issue did not occur. Environmentalists continued (mis)using the term pristine and they continue (mis)using the term today.

Indigenous Critique

Indigenous Americans (aka “Indians”) reacted to the critique from historians with a resounding “duh!” The original inhabitants of North America, they tell us, have always known that wilderness is part of, not separate from, their society.

The Indigenous critique is implicit in the work of Californian M. Kat Anderson. Her book – Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources – offers a wealth of information on the manner in which California’s Indigenous inhabitants managed resources in what to white invaders was “howling wilderness”. Anderson also helped republish a major work on Indigenous use of fire in North America: Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness.

Rethinking Wilderness

While the Environmental Establishment ignored these critiques, a generation of college students learned about them and most came to consider the critiques as valid. As these students advance in the world of work they may take the critique into the Environmental Movement through the back door – or, more precisely, from the bottom up. I see evidence of that in books like Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.

I am a wilderness advocate. But that does not require me to deny that what today we recognize as wilderness was once part of the seamless world of Indigenous peoples. Rather I see the pristine myth as unnecessary baggage imported into the Environmental Movement from discredited western philosophies that sought to separate humans from nature – an enterprise which I think is the height of conceit – not to mention downright silly.

In my view, it would be a good thing if the critique of the pristine myth gains traction within the Environmental Establishment. The European conceit of humans as separate from nature is is an impediment to the Environmental and Indigenous Movements finding common ground and making common cause in preserving biodiversity. Moreover the pristine myth is not needed to make a compelling case for protecting more wilderness.

Wilderness Without the Pristine Myth
While wilderness is not and never has been pristine (synonyms include immaculate, primal, spotless, sanitary, stainless, unadulterated, uncorrupted, unsullied, untainted, untouched, and virginal), it is also not the same as the “dusty world” where humans live and work. Wilderness today may not be – to use words from the 1964 Wilderness Act – “untrammeled” but it is a place where a human “is a visitor who does not remain.”

Wilderness advocates do not need the pristine myth because we have the wild. As poet-philosopher Gary Snyder points out in his collection of essays The Practice of the Wild, (http://www.holybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Practice-of-the-Wild-by-Gary-Snyder.pdf) wild land is self-willed land – land that is not dominated or controlled by humans. And while the wild is not confined to wilderness, it is in wilderness that we can most easily connect to the wild in nature and in ourselves.

The confusion between wilderness and wild is rampant among environmentalists. It is equally rampant among those historians, geographers and indigenous thinkers who critique the myth of pristine wilderness. The Practice of the Wild is an excellent tool for sorting out the difference.

Partners for Wilderness Protection

In the essay Good, Wild, Sacred Gary Snyder points out that Indigenous peoples everywhere appreciate the wild; in all traditional cultures high and wild places are places of spirit and of power.  In the Klamath Mountains, for example, Indigenous natives recognized special places – places where one went alone to cry for power. Certain sacred places were clearly and intentionally not actively managed, some were forbidden to humans. Mount Shasta is such a place; for traditional natives, going to its sacred summit is forbidden.

While it is undeniable that Indigenous Americans managed and manage their environment, it is also clear that they honored and still honor wild places as sacred.  No traditional Indigenous native would place a dwelling or locate a business on a sacred mountain.

Wilderness as a special place which is simultaneously part of the world and a place apart can and should serve as the basis for a united front by the Environmental and Indigenous Movements in the struggle to protect those portions of the earth in which natural ecological processes still function with integrity. The persistence of the pristine myth within the Environmental Movement is an impediment to that collaboration.

In the US federally designated wilderness is to remain “without permanent improvements or human habitation” and is to be “managed so as to preserve its natural condition.” Traditional Indigenous uses are part of that “natural condition” and can be accommodated by wilderness managers in compliance with applicable law and without compromising the integrity of the wilderness.

Wilderness areas are also reservoir of biodiversity where natural processes can function properly, that is, in a wild way. This too is an objective on which the Environmental and Indigenous Movements can find common ground and purpose. Preserving biodiversity corresponds closely with the Indigenous concept of respect for all creation.

In Conclusion

Wilderness areas provide opportunities for humans to cultivate humility – a virtue which is in short supply these days on this planet. The Myth of the Pristine derives from the particular form of hubris which emerged within western European philosophy. It is in its essence the antithesis of humility. In the spirit of humility, let’s get rid of it!

Felice Pace is a longtime environmental activist in northern California. You can find his writings online at Bearitude in Black.

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